A person passes a homeless man lying on a street in Washington. (OSV News photo/Bob Roller)

No one ‘chooses’ to be homeless

  • March 9, 2023

In the frigid early morning hours of Dec. 21, 2021, young Calgary resident Asher Atter set out, in his own words, to “fight a downtown addict.” According to a front page story in the March 1 Globe and Mail, Atter then attacked a homeless man in a light-rail transit station. He sprayed the man’s face with a fire extinguisher and stabbed him in the back, cutting into his liver. 

Leaving that man behind, Atter launched two similar attacks on homeless men. The focus of the Globe article was whether Atter’s crime — and others like it — constitutes a hate crime. When Atter is sentenced in April, a judge will rule on that matter.

No matter what the judge decides, attacks on homeless people living on the street or in shelters are becoming more frequent across Canada. The murder of a homeless man outside a Toronto shelter, reportedly by eight teenage girls last year, underlined the manner in which homeless people are being treated as human garbage.

No human being should be victimized the way Atter abused his victims. Yet, the belief that the homeless have somehow fallen into their fate due to personal irresponsibility, addiction or criminal behaviour grossly distorts the nature of homelessness in Canada. Homelessness is not a choice. 

People become homeless for a variety of reasons, including domestic violence, childhood trauma, substance abuse disorders, discrimination based on sexual orientation or race, low incomes, underemployment, chronic health problems, mental illness and the lack of affordable housing.

In our conference of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Assumption and Resurrection parishes in southeast Edmonton, we regularly encounter people in danger of falling into homelessness. Parishioners are beyond generous in donating food and cash to help us serve those whose poverty is often a transitional phase in their lives. No parishioners ask if the recipients of their donations are deserving or undeserving poor as if such a distinction made sense. A great reservoir of good will exists.

Yet our governments’ actions do not match the generosity of so many of their constituents. Government investment in housing across Canada has plummeted 46 per cent over the past 25 years. If you want to know why so many more people live on the streets or are homeless in other ways than even 10 years ago, there is a good part of your answer.

In February, the Edmonton Coalition on Housing and Homelessness issued a call to the leaders of Alberta’s political parties in advance of the upcoming provincial election. The coalition said homelessness must be eradicated. Tens of thousands of Albertans suffer from substandard or a complete lack of housing. The government should commit $600 million a year for 10 years on low-income housing. It should also strengthen tenant rights, the coalition said among its many recommendations.

Six billion dollars is a lot of money. But two weeks after the Edmonton coalition issued its statement, the province announced a $10.4-billion surplus for the current fiscal year which ends March 31. The government also projected a surplus — based on a conservative estimate of income from non-renewable energy sources — of $2.4 billion for 2023-24.

Our decaying social structure is evident to all who have the eyes to see. Much is going astray in Western society, and the ever-increasing chasm between the rich and poor is one central cause. While many are spiritually dying from overconsumption, travel-itis and spending on gambling and other useless activities, large numbers have not even a home to lay their head. Tent cities dot our major centres, and children are being raised without the basic necessities. It bodes for an unhappy, dystopian future.

Attacks on homeless people are a sign of our societal malaise. Born out of fear and a sense of superiority over supposed sinners, those attacks represent the opposite of what it means to be Christian. The same can be said of our failure to provide supportive housing for people in poverty and other forms of distress. Non-profit groups should be at the forefront of developing and running non-market housing, but only governments have the means to fund its development.

To say we cannot afford to provide housing for those in need is ostrich-headed thinking. The long-term costs to health care, the criminal justice system and social services far outstrip the costs of adequately housing the poor. Until the poor can live with stability in housing and other aspects of their lives, an us versus them mentality will proliferate. Political and community leaders must act to protect the common good of our society.

(Glen Argan writes his online column Epiphany at https://glenargan.substack.com.) 

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